How is numpy's fancy indexing implemented?


I was doing a little experimentation with 2D lists and numpy arrays. From this, I’ve raised 3 questions I’m quite curious to know the answer for.

First, I initialized a 2D python list.

>>> my_list = [[1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6], [7, 8, 9]]

I then tried indexing the list with a tuple.

>>> my_list[:,]
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
TypeError: list indices must be integers, not tuple

Since the interpreter throws me a TypeError and not a SyntaxError, I surmised it is actually possible to do this, but python does not natively support it.

I then tried converting the list to a numpy array and doing the same thing.

>>> np.array(my_list)[:,]
array([[1, 2, 3],
       [4, 5, 6],
       [7, 8, 9]])

Of course, no problem. My understanding is that one of the __xx__() methods have been overridden and implemented in the numpy package.

Numpy’s indexing supports lists too:

>>> np.array(my_list)[:,[0, 1]]
array([[1, 2],
       [4, 5],
       [7, 8]])

This has raised a couple of questions:

  1. Which __xx__ method has numpy overridden/defined to handle fancy indexing?
  2. Why don’t python lists natively support fancy indexing?

(Bonus question: why do my timings show that slicing in python2 is slower than python3?)

Asked By: cs95



You have three questions:

1. Which __xx__ method has numpy overridden/defined to handle fancy indexing?

The indexing operator [] is overridable using __getitem__, __setitem__, and __delitem__. It can be fun to write a simple subclass that offers some introspection:

>>> class VerboseList(list):
...     def __getitem__(self, key):
...         print(key)
...         return super().__getitem__(key)

Let’s make an empty one first:

>>> l = VerboseList()

Now fill it with some values. Note that we haven’t overridden __setitem__ so nothing interesting happens yet:

>>> l[:] = range(10)

Now let’s get an item. At index 0 will be 0:

>>> l[0]

If we try to use a tuple, we get an error, but we get to see the tuple first!

>>> l[0, 4]
(0, 4)
Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File "<stdin>", line 4, in __getitem__
TypeError: list indices must be integers or slices, not tuple

We can also find out how python represents slices internally:

>>> l[1:3]
slice(1, 3, None)
[1, 2]

There are lots more fun things you can do with this object — give it a try!

2. Why don’t python lists natively support fancy indexing?

This is hard to answer. One way of thinking about it is historical: because the numpy developers thought of it first.

You youngsters. When I was a kid…

Upon its first public release in 1991, Python had no numpy library, and to make a multi-dimensional list, you had to nest list structures. I assume that the early developers — in particular, Guido van Rossum (GvR) — felt that keeping things simple was best, initially. Slice indexing was already pretty powerful.

However, not too long after, interest grew in using Python as a scientific computing language. Between 1995 and 1997, a number of developers collaborated on a library called numeric, an early predecessor of numpy. Though he wasn’t a major contributor to numeric or numpy, GvR coordinated with the numeric developers, extending Python’s slice syntax in ways that made multidimensional array indexing easier. Later, an alternative to numeric arose called numarray; and in 2006, numpy was created, incorporating the best features of both.

These libraries were powerful, but they required heavy c extensions and so on. Working them into the base Python distribution would have made it bulky. And although GvR did enhance slice syntax a bit, adding fancy indexing to ordinary lists would have changed their API dramatically — and somewhat redundantly. Given that fancy indexing could be had with an outside library already, the benefit wasn’t worth the cost.

Parts of this narrative are speculative, in all honesty.1 I don’t know the developers really! But it’s the same decision I would have made. In fact…

It really should be that way.

Although fancy indexing is very powerful, I’m glad it’s not part of vanilla Python even today, because it means that you don’t have to think very hard when working with ordinary lists. For many tasks you don’t need it, and the cognitive load it imposes is significant.

Keep in mind that I’m talking about the load imposed on readers and maintainers. You may be a whiz-bang genius who can do 5-d tensor products in your head, but other people have to read your code. Keeping fancy indexing in numpy means people don’t use it unless they honestly need it, which makes code more readable and maintainable in general.

3. Why is numpy’s fancy indexing so slow on python2? Is it because I don’t have native BLAS support for numpy in this version?

Possibly. It’s definitely environment-dependent; I don’t see the same difference on my machine.

1. The parts of the narrative that aren’t as speculative are drawn from a brief history told in a special issue of Computing in Science and Engineering (2011 vol. 13).

Answered By: senderle

Which __xx__ method has numpy overridden/defined to handle fancy indexing?

__getitem__ for retrieval, __setitem__ for assignment. It’d be __delitem__ for deletion, except that NumPy arrays don’t support deletion.

(It’s all written in C, though, so what they implemented at C level was mp_subscript and mp_ass_subscript, and __getitem__ and __setitem__ wrappers were provided by PyType_Ready. __delitem__ too, even though deletion is unsupported, because __setitem__ and __delitem__ both map to mp_ass_subscript at C level.)

Why don’t python lists natively support fancy indexing?

Python lists are fundamentally 1-dimensional structures, while NumPy arrays are arbitrary-dimensional. Multidimensional indexing only makes sense for multidimensional data structures.

You can have a list with lists as elements, like [[1, 2], [3, 4]], but the list doesn’t know or care about the structure of its elements. Making lists support l[:, 2] indexing would require the list to be aware of multidimensional structure in a way that lists aren’t designed to be. It would also add a lot of complexity, a lot of error handling, and a lot of extra design decisions – how deep a copy should l[:, :] be? What happens if the structure is ragged, or inconsistently nested? Should multidimensional indexing recurse into non-list elements? What would del l[1:3, 1:3] do?

I’ve seen the NumPy indexing implementation, and it’s longer than the entire implementation of lists. Here’s part of it. It’s not worth doing that to lists when NumPy arrays satisfy all the really compelling use cases you’d need it for.

Why is numpy’s fancy indexing so slow on python2? Is it because I don’t have native BLAS support for numpy in this version?

NumPy indexing isn’t a BLAS operation, so that’s not it. I can’t reproduce such dramatic timing differences, and the differences I do see look like minor Python 3 optimizations, maybe slightly more efficient allocation of tuples or slices. What you’re seeing is probably due to NumPy version differences.

Answered By: user2357112

my_list[:,] is translated by the interpreter into

my_list.__getitem__((slice(None, None, None),))

It’s like calling a function with *args, but it takes care of translating the : notation into a slice object. Without the , it would just pass the slice. With the , it passes a tuple.

The list __getitem__ does not accept a tuple, as shown by the error. An array __getitem__ does. I believe the ability to pass a tuple and create slice objects was added as convenience for numpy (or its predicessors). The tuple notation has never been added to the list __getitem__. (There is an operator.itemgetter class that allows a form of advanced indexing, but internally it is just a Python code iterator.)

With an array you can use the tuple notation directly:

In [490]: np.arange(6).reshape((2,3))[:,[0,1]]
array([[0, 1],
       [3, 4]])
In [491]: np.arange(6).reshape((2,3))[(slice(None),[0,1])]
array([[0, 1],
       [3, 4]])
In [492]: np.arange(6).reshape((2,3)).__getitem__((slice(None),[0,1]))
array([[0, 1],
       [3, 4]])

Look at the numpy/lib/ file for example of fun stuff you can do with __getitem__. You can view the file with


A nested list is a list of lists:

In a nested list, the sublists are independent of the containing list. The container just has pointers to objects elsewhere in memory:

In [494]: my_list = [[1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6], [7, 8, 9]]
In [495]: my_list
Out[495]: [[1, 2, 3], [4, 5, 6], [7, 8, 9]]
In [496]: len(my_list)
Out[496]: 3
In [497]: my_list[1]
Out[497]: [4, 5, 6]
In [498]: type(my_list[1])
Out[498]: list
In [499]: my_list[1]='astring'
In [500]: my_list
Out[500]: [[1, 2, 3], 'astring', [7, 8, 9]]

Here I change the 2nd item of my_list; it is no longer a list, but a string.

If I apply [:] to a list I just get a shallow copy:

In [501]: xlist = my_list[:]
In [502]: xlist[1] = 43
In [503]: my_list           # didn't change my_list
Out[503]: [[1, 2, 3], 'astring', [7, 8, 9]]
In [504]: xlist
Out[504]: [[1, 2, 3], 43, [7, 8, 9]]

but changing an element of a list in xlist does change the corresponding sublist in my_list:

In [505]: xlist[0][1]=43
In [506]: my_list
Out[506]: [[1, 43, 3], 'astring', [7, 8, 9]]

To me this shows by n-dimensional indexing (as implemented for numpy arrays) doesn’t make sense with nested lists. Nested lists are multidimensional only to the extent that their contents allow; there’s nothing structural or syntactically multidimensional about them.

the timings

Using two [:] on a list does not make a deep copy or work its way down the nesting. It just repeats the shallow copy step:

In [507]: ylist=my_list[:][:]
In [508]: ylist[0][1]='boo'
In [509]: xlist
Out[509]: [[1, 'boo', 3], 43, [7, 8, 9]]

arr[:,] just makes a view of arr. The difference between view and copy is part of understanding the difference between basic and advanced indexing.

So alist[:][:] and arr[:,] are different, but basic ways of making some sort of copy of lists and arrays. Neither computes anything, and neither iterates through the elements. So a timing comparison doesn’t tell us much.

Answered By: hpaulj
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